Starvation in the Okanagan

Ah, so green, right? So full of life!

Not so great in the grasslands, really. The green is a sign of nitrogen uptake, and this is the season of lichens…

They draw nitrogen from the air. The rain washes it off to plants, who soak it up all winter long, in special environments between and under the snow. Here’s one:

Or not. In a healthy grassland, we will see lichens under there, creating nitrogen for the sage that shades them like a hen, and for the flowers, like asters …

… that live off this nitrogen, the long season that sagebrush’s shelter gives, and that nitrogen. But now…

… there’s no lichen, only invasive cheatgrass taking up the nitrogen and starving out the asters and lilies. Without flowers, there are no songbirds. It’s not just the sage that’s struggling. The balsam root is too.

It looks so green and healthy, doesn’t it. Ah, but when plants need that nitrogen in the spring, it’s not there. Everyone on the hill is having this problem. In all of this, there’s one little patch of green lichens just below the centre of the image.

The rest is actually bare ground, the earth without a skin. There’s cheatgrass for a little while in the spring, but by July it’s gone and the Earth has no shelter from the sun. Without a lichen cover, there isn’t anywhere for seeds to lodge. Life just flows away. There’s nothing that climate change can throw at this hill that is worse than what has been done already. The landscape is already dying. It is already overheating. You are already looking at climate change. If it all burns away, or washes away, now, well, that’s because it has withstood that for 160 years already. Just remember: when the hills in the Okanagan are green, they are starving.

Appearances are deceiving. But you knew that, didn’t you?

2 replies »

  1. I’m not a forester. However, I once noticed that the red alder trees had relatively little lichen on them near Vancouver, but more as you went up the Fraser Valley until in some places they were almost “white” with lichens. My forester friend told me that the air pollution in urban Vancouver and suburbs prevented (destroyed?) lichen growth.

    What I’ve spotted “up here” (Telkwa/Quick) is that when patch logging is done with all the evergreens removed and most of the aspen, the soil gets terribly droughty. When I visited a horse-logging site that was done with only selected trees cut, the moss/lichen/undergrowth stayed damp and spongy after logging.


    • Thanks! I will keep my eyes out for all that. Lichen does love the shade when it’s on trees. Same as moss, perhaps: when the leaves fall, the light is all theirs, and in the meantime it’s wet.


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